Summit County Tobacco 21 Proposal Intended To Deter Young Vapers

Sticker used in Akron stores where the minimum age to buy tobacco products is 21.
Sticker used in Akron stores where the minimum age to buy tobacco products is 21. [M.L. Schultze]

Summit County is debating whether to increase the minimum age to buy tobacco products to 21. The change already has been adopted in 17 municipalities around the state, including Akron, Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati.

If Summit County Council joins them, retailers in the nine townships in the county would no longer be able to sell cigarettes, chewing tobacco and vaping products to 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds. Cory Kendrick of the Summit County Health Department says that’s crucial when it comes to disrupting the flow of tobacco from older high school students to those in younger grades.

“And that’s really the goal is to start middle schoolers and high schoolers from ever starting,” he said, “because we know if we can hold people off to the age of 21 from ever trying tobacco products and becoming addicted, they’re 95 percent less likely to ever become addicted.”

Akron passed a law hiking its minimum age to 21 last April and began implementing the law in October. That included sending out “secret shoppers” to more than 1,100 retailers, and finding that 30 percent of them were selling tobacco to those younger than 21. Retailers with one violation for underage sales get a warning. After that, fines climb from $500 to $1,000, and repeated violations could eventually cost a retailer his or her license.

Kendrick says enforcement is key to an effective Tobacco 21 program and is aimed at the retail establishments, not the buyers.

Opponents have maintained that 18 is the age considered adult for most other legal activities in Ohio, including joining the military, and should be with tobacco.

Kendrick countered that Ohio has higher age restrictions on drinking and gambling, and unlike activities such as voting, “What benefit to society does tobacco bring? Voting, marriage, all these other points have potential good outcomes for the individual and for society. Tobacco has no good outcomes. It harms the user, it harms people around the users and it costs society billions of dollars.”

Of special concern to public health officials is vaping, which Kendrick called an epidemic among young people that is reversing decades of progress in cutting youth rates of tobacco use. He says vaping among high school students has increased 78 percent nationwide over the last year. According to the Centers for Disease Control’s National Youth Tobacco Survey published earlier this month, more than three million high schoolers used an e-cigarette in the last 30 days.

There will be a second reading of the proposed Tobacco 21 measure at Summit County Council next week and a likely vote the week after.

If Summit County adopts the program, Kendrick estimated it will cost $50,000 to $60,000 a year to implement and enforce, more than the program is likely to bring in from a one-time registration fee and fines. But he said the cost is worth it. 

“From our perspective, where else could you invest $50,000 to $60,000 for a countywide initiative and see your results that could potentially cut our youth initiation results in half?” he said. “That is an excellent public health investment.”

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